Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Beanie meets Saussure

Recalled from a conversation with Beanie, age 6 and 3/4 on the eve of Christmas Eve, an example of parenting as an anthropologist:



"I always wanted to know: Who made up languages? Because all languages are made up."

"Wow, Beanie." Is this supposed to become a teaching moment on the concept of arbitrariness?

"So, that must mean that somebody had to make up all the languages."

"That is a question that a lot of people have tried to answer."

"Do you think it was one person? How could we ever know? What would be the first word that someone made up?"

"How about we make up our own words?"

Giggle. So cute. "Dr. Seuss makes up his own words."

"Is that language?"

"I guess so because it's made up."

Hmm. "So, what if I start calling what you call an apple a 'snargleboffin'?"

Giggle. Even cuter. Sigh. "No. Because what you call a - what did you call it?"


"What you call a snargleboffin is what I call a boffagargle in my language."

"If I make up my own words and you make up your own words, then how are we supposed to understand each other? So, I think languages are not made up by one person."

"It has to be more than one person. Maybe two."


"No." Giggle. "Boffagargle."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Druggiest colleges, part duh

Just a quick follow-up to my post from yesterday, concerning our almost-daily newspaper's front page headline declaring that the college where I teach is "Not Among 'Druggiest' Schools."

Today, the headline across the top of the almost-daily's front page reads: "How Heroin Gets Here," with a sub-head quoting the county D.A.: "Drug has become serious problem."



In other news, the free once-weekly newspaper that is mailed to our house reports on its front page: "TJ Maxx Is Coming Into Mall."

I admit that when I saw it, I smiled and let out a little whoop: "Cool!"

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The druggiest colleges in America?

The front page of our almost-daily newspaper blared with a headline about the college where I teach being "not among 'druggiest' schools, locals say."

Which I think violates certain rules taught in journalism school about writing headlines and "not" being not news in the first place. In any case.

The article tells us that The Daily Beast posted a list of the "50 druggiest colleges" in the United States. Included in the top 10 were the college where I now teach. (So, technically, it is among the "druggiest" schools, in contradiction to the headline.)

"I think the whole thing is preposterous," the article quotes the mayor of our fair city saying.

I agree. Although not necessarily for the same reason as hizzoner.

The piece is clearly a bit of snark - I mean, this is the Web site that Tina Brown founded and edited - responding to "Operation Ivy League" that snared students dealing drugs at Columbia University.

Its "methodology" is. Well. Creative. (I can snark, too.)

The grown-ups see a list like this as discrediting the work that they do to protect and promote the health, well-being, and safety of the students here. Not to mention to teach them.

It is also demeaning to the students who take seriously that "the college has raised its standards, and the quality of the students has improved," as one student told the almost-daily. However, Operation Ivy League itself seems to belie the assumption that the selectivity of the college and the SAT scores of the students can be taken as signs of Moral Character and / or Intelligent Decision Making.

Interestingly, the elite college that StraightMan and I attended as undergraduates - Williams - is also included in the top 10, even with a drug use grade of A- from a student review database called College Prowler: "A high grade, i.e. an A+, indicates that drugs and alcohol are not noticeable on campus and there is no pressure to use drugs."

I wonder what college kids - and a lot of them see themselves as kids - think about this. With higher education resembling a marketplace of branded names that offer more or less the same kinds of bells and whistles, to what extent might the notoriety of being ranked among the druggiest colleges in America actually distinguish one brand from another? With the result of making a school better known and more attractive?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Keeping up with The Times

Exams and papers have been graded, and the fall semester has a great big fork stuck in it. Then along comes this article, "Mental Health Needs Seen Growing at Colleges," which I think is worth a gander for anyone teaching undergraduate students:

A recent survey by the American College Counseling Association found that a majority of students seek help for normal post-adolescent trouble like romantic heartbreak and identity crises. But 44 percent in counseling have severe psychological disorders, up from 16 percent in 2000, and 24 percent are on psychiatric medication, up from 17 percent a decade ago.

The most common disorders today: depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, alcohol abuse, attention disorders, self-injury and eating disorders.

Every semester, it seems, I have at least one or two students who come to talk to me about their concerns about their performance in my courses - in connection with the side effects of the medications that they take for depression and / or anxiety and / or attention disorders.

What got to me especially was the effects that students' problems have on the people who work with them: "The need to help this troubled population has forced campus mental health centers — whose staffs, on average, have not grown in proportion to student enrollment in 15 years — to take extraordinary measures to make do."

This is not to mention the professors, like me, who frankly are unequipped to do much more than make referrals to the counseling center. However, each referral results from my taking the time and care to sit and listen - and absorb - the worries of a student who approaches me as his or her teacher.

“By this point in the semester to not lose hope or get jaded about the work, it can be a challenge,” Dr. Hwang [a clinical psychology at SUNY Stony Brook] said. “By the end of the day, I go home so adrenalized that even though I’m exhausted it will take me hours to fall asleep.”

For relief, she plays with her 2-year-old daughter, and she has taken up the guitar again.

Hmm. I need a hobby.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What Beanie wants to know...

... is why the "pretty girls" in the movies are blondes.

My immediate impulse was to protest that it simply is not true. For example, Beanie's given name is also the title of a movie starring Audrey Hepburn.

At the time, Beanie and her best friend, Pants, were watching a Barbie movie ("The Princess and the Pauper"). Which, for the record, is not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Beanie and Pants wanted to know why the princess had blonde hair, and the pauper had brown hair, like theirs. Of course, both princess and pauper were Barbies - also, the strong resemblance is critical to the story's plot... - but I think Beanie and Pants, at the ages of almost 7 and 7 years old, have caught wind of the blonde obsession of American (and perhaps, globalized) popular culture and it is making them mad.

Which, I have to admit, warms the cold, cold cockles of my feminist heart.

See? Even a Barbie movie can become a teaching moment.

Later, I pointed out to Beanie that although the makers of movies often try to make the movies look "real," even when set in places like Hogwarts, in fact, they are not real and barely resemble "real" life. After all, if the movies were real, then there should be not only girls with brown hair, but also girls who looked like me ("Asian") and girls who looked like her (with mixed heritage) and girls with dark skin as well as girls with blonde hair.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Feeling bookish

Final exams begin today. In other words, I will be underwater in grading for the rest of the week.

Still, could not resist browsing blogs and such that I have no business reading right at the moment. I found this post on Inside Higher Ed today really interesting: All the President's Books.

I appreciated author Eric Weinberger's reflections on the small, but good things (I think) that he did in his treatment of books sent to the president of Harvard University: "In all this, the important thing was that books were objects to be honored, not treated as tiresome throwaways, and that everyone in the building knew this."

As I, a pleased kindle owner, find myself constantly saying: Books and paper are perfectly wonderful technologies that they do what they do effectively and efficiently. Also, meaningfully. No need to get in a hurry to rid ourselves of them, either in the abstract or the particular.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Somebody had to say it

Classes ended Friday, finals start tomorrow. So, I took advantage of the lull: I put on clothes and a shade of lipstick that make me feel a little frilly, we hired a baby sitter, and StraightMan and I went to a party! Where admittedly we talked to a bunch of our faculty friends and kvetched about how hard this semester has been, especially for the parents who have had to deal with head lice. Remember what I said about "sucks" being the new normal?

What with writing exams and managing students suddenly concerned with their performance (or lack thereof) in my classes, I have had nary a moment to keep up with the Times, but StraightMan just turned to me (literally, from his desk next to mine) and said I should stop whatever it was that I was doing (which happened to be re-reading the exam that I wrote for this Wednesday) and look at this opinion piece: "What Progressives Don’t Understand About Obama".

I am glad that somebody said it: The United States has a "black" president, but that does not mean that we do not - or that he does not - have to contend continually with issues of race in the United States. When historians look back at Obama's presidency, they will have to look seriously at how race conditioned and constrained his actions and reactions.

Obama, in fact, cannot enjoy the privilege of playing an avenging cowboy: "What the progressives forget is that black intellectuals have been called “paranoid,” “bitter,” “rowdy,” “angry,” “bullies,” and accused of tirades and diatribes for more than 100 years."

Also, Ishmael Reed reminds us: "When these progressives refer to themselves as Mr. Obama’s base, all they see is themselves. They ignore polls showing steadfast support for the president among blacks and Latinos."

Along these lines, I find this piece in The Nation's Finest News Source from a few weeks back to be strangely spot-on about the State of the Union. Proving yet again that the fake news can be so much more insightful.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The mean reds

Remember in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," when Holly says to Paul:

"You know those days when you get the mean reds?"

"The mean reds, you mean like the blues?"

"No. The blues are because you're getting fat and maybe it's been raining too long, you're just sad, that's all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you're afraid and you don't know what you're afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?"

Kind of. I mean, it is not exactly fear that I am feeling right now, but more like diffuse anxiety, which I suppose is a kind of fear that I will forget something or someone... The diffuseness of my anxiety could be mistaken for not knowing what it is that itches and nag.

In other words: It is the end of the semester.

What triggers the mean reds for me is not necessarily having to write exams (or even to grade them within 24 hours of their completion). It is:

* Having to hear yet another student's confession about the problems he or she has been having from the start of the semester that affected the quality of the student's performance in my class, which he or she in fact found quite interesting, also that the student is a lot more intelligent and hard-working than he or she might have given the impression of being. None of which I dispute. However, I cannot grade the goodness of intention or the greatness of potential.

* Having to say no to students asking for or requesting a range of exceptions, from submitting work from the first month of class now during finals week to whether or not they can devise an additional assignment for extra credit to rescheduling the date and time of their final exams b/c they have back-to-back exams.


Look. I know it is "right" to say no. Also, that as the professor, I have the right to say no.

The fact is that I do say no.

However. I hate being put in the position of having to say yes or no. At all.

Perhaps it is that I am uncomfortable with the "power" of being the professor who assigns the grades. (I suppose it is an occupation hazard of being a cultural anthropologist, but sometimes I cannot help but feel that this power is being exercised rather arbitrarily - I mean, we all hear the stories from students about the insane professor in another department...)

Or am I showing my gender: I like to be nice, and I have a problem with not being nice?

Or perhaps it is that I feel the efforts I already make for students seem to go unrecognized - for example, for students in ANTH 100, I post events like lectures and films that they can attend and write about for extra credit on the Web-based course calendar.

Not to mention what I had been doing up there in the front of the lecture hall during the entire rest of the semester. Which might or might not have made a difference. Blurgh.


So, I have the mean reds right now:

Well, when I get it the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany's. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that'd make me feel like Tiffany's, then - then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Volunteer, shmolunteer

My point is not to say stop giving your time. Rather, it is a call to have us all recognize what that means. Which is a lot.

StraightMan forwarded me a link to this piece in the NYT, "Frazzled Moms Push Back Against Volunteering," with the comment: "Hm, dads holding down the fort with their 8.5 hours/week," which referred to the number of hours of child care that American men on average perform. (The number of hours for American women on average is twice that.)

He also added: "But it is also true that it's important to keep a tight rein on volunteering."

I definitely know some moms seriously overloaded with their volunteer commitments to their children's school and / or other related organizations. (You know who you are: You have no business reading this blog right now. You have something else that you really ought to be doing.)

The piece struck me because school volunteer work has been, and still is, unpaid and unacknowledged work that primarily women perform. In the past, it would have been performed by stay-at-home mothers, and it probably still is primarily SAHMs, but I have to say that some of the women I know who are busiest with their volunteer commitments also are full-time working mothers.

Or as StraightMan said to me, paraphrasing a bit of wisdom from his own dad, a former minister, about who you can trust to get something done: "Find the busiest person you know, and ask her."

I am not one of those women. At least not when it comes to school volunteer work. I do what I can: I go to PTO meetings at the elementary school, and I organize the monthly snack calendar and the Facebook page for the nursery school. I wish I could spend time visiting the kids' classrooms and so on. I think not only might it benefit my kids' experience, but I think I might enjoy it.

However. To call what all of these women contribute to schools and other organizations "volunteer" work is rather misleading. I might add: Trivializing. The work that all of these women donate is necessary to the basic functions and operations of the institutions themselves. Or as the NYT itself reports:

As local and state economies continue to struggle, budget cuts to rich and poor school systems are increasing the reliance on unpaid parent help. The need is so great that some school districts, like a couple of specialty schools in Prince William County, Va., have made it mandatory to commit to a small amount of volunteer time, and others are considering it. In San Jose, Calif., one elementary school district has been discussing a proposal that the families of its 13,000 students commit to 30 hours of volunteer work during the year.

Many parents are happy to volunteer uncoerced, and most everyone recognizes the worthiness of the cause. But the heightened need and expectations are coming at a time when many parents have less and less time to give.

"Parents"?! Ahem. Nowhere in this piece (which was 3 pages long on the Web) were men and fathers mentioned. Except to complain that their wives were never home (i.e., saddling them with "baby sitting" while they organized another school event...) - including the cautionary tale of the woman who did so much that her husband eventually left her.

For the record, the president of the PTO at my daughter's school is a dad. StraightMan serves with two other dads on the board of our son's nursery school. These guys ought not to be the exceptions.

My other response to the piece: I serve "voluntarily" on four committees on campus and in a national professional organization. (That is in addition to all that is entailed in teaching four classes and developing a scholarly career, without which, BTW, my teaching would be worthless...) I will not say all of the committee work, but I will say a lot of it is necessary to the basic functions and operations of the college itself.

A critical difference between school volunteer work and so-called professional service is that the latter becomes rewarded: With tenure. I hope.

It seems to me also that there is all kinds of gendered committee work that happens at colleges and universities. The untenured men can simmer down: I hear and see you. I know that you, like me, feel pressured to take on "volunteer" commitments. I will have to save that topic for when I have tenure...

Friday, December 3, 2010

Benefit of the doubt

This is to follow up on my post from the other day on college degree or pedigree.

A friend commented on Facebook that one of the social assets that is gained through attending an elite college or university is benefit of the doubt:

Sure, graduate schools may matter more, but going to an elite college makes it easier to get into a top graduate school. Having worked at two Ivies now, I've seen up close how this benefit of the doubt works in an almost talismanic way for those who graduate from these schools. Most interesting to me in the debate was the point that this benefit of the doubt can be especially beneficial to minority students.

This reminded me that as a child, my parents taught me, explicitly and implicitly, that in order to be considered "as good" as "other people" in the United States, I needed to perform "even better," as they perceived inequalities in the social order: Arriving as "guest workers," they felt keenly that they had a "place" that they were given in American society, but to this day, even as naturalized citizens, I think they lack of real sense of belonging. They still talk about "American people" as somebody else.

Performing "even better" to my parents signified speaking "good English" and academics. So, they stopped speaking Korean at home with me, and fairly aggressively encouraged my reading and writing with weekly visits to the public library. Some families take day trips and vacations to look at mountains and lakes: My parents took us to look at Columbia and Harvard.

So, I think the comment on benefit of the doubt raises points that I hope are being examined further: The experience of attending an elite college, and the "fact" of receiving a pedigree from one certainly benefit individuals, but they also benefits individuals differently. For students who become identified as "minority," it might represent simply gaining a foot in the door, which seems rather a modest aspiration.

Also, among "minority" students, there will be differences: The rates at which Asian-American students enter and graduate from college and university look staggeringly different from the rates for African-American and Latino/a students. In addition, "Asian-American" students can refer to the upper-middle-class children of professional parents who immigrated from Taiwan and then moved to Alpine, New Jersey - and to the children of refugees.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What was it that Mark Twain said about being dead?

Sigh. I found this article, "Anthropology without Science," a bit overheated and under-informing, for the reasons that Hugh Gusterson (a cultural anthropologist on the AAA's executive board) writes in a comment to this posting:

I notice that the article does not tell the readers what the new wording is and how it differs from the old wording. (What sort of journalism is that?) Maybe we could dial down the temperature a little if people saw the two sets of wording. The old wording said "The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists; including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems." The new wording says, "The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research."

I grow weary of that old chestnut about science being thrown under the bus of post-modernism. Reading the old versus the new wording, I think the change in orientation seems to be from promoting anthropology-as-a-science (i.e., discipline building, professionalizing, and claiming authoritative knowledge) to promoting the science itself - that is, the research and knowledge itself. It is about anthropologists as a group needing to communicate better what we do and how we think in terms that can be apprehended more easily as relevant to broader publics.

Which I think ought to start with the publics within the discipline. Frankly, I think the subfields are not only not particularly good at communicating with the oft-cited man / woman on the street, but they are pretty bad at communicating with each other. Obviously, there are individuals who are exceptions - primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's work on allomothering is read not only widely across anthropology, but also in other disciplines.

In general, however, archaeologists seem really to write and talk only to each other, and cultural anthropologists the same.

Frankly, I am a little tired of that other old chestnut that the four fields are drifting further apart and the discipline has no direction and so on. I mean, there is disarray also in economics, which as a science really ought to be feeling dismal right now...

Also, I think we ought to give more attention to where we can see communication and collaboration across the four fields - for example, on themes like water, climate change, extinction, and species. In fact, I went to an esp. interesting "experimental" panel (or "innovent") on multispecies called "Swarm." It featured anthros from the four fields, plus coordinated exhibits at art galleries, which engage yet another public. I missed them, but read more at Savage Minds.

'Nuff said :)

College degree - or pedigree?

Today's Room for Debate in the NYT is worth reading - the discussion is on "Does It Matter Where You Go to College?"

Personally, I go back and forth on this issue - I think b/c the question itself is not that straightforward.

Does it matter? No, in the sense that it matters more "what you do," both in your time in school and afterward. Also, no in that graduate school might "matter" more. Not to mention that students will find good teachers almost anywhere.

However. Yes, in the sense that where you go to college can put you into contact with professors and probably even more significantly peers who will affect your own performance or "what you do" at school. Also, where you go to college and as a result, who you know, become important and meaningful forms of cultural and social capital.

Yes, in the sense also that, as one of the bloggers at Room for Debate also notes:

If you attend a highly selective college, the per pupil expenditure is $92,000, compared with just $12,000 at the least selective colleges. The richest colleges require students on average to pay just 20 percent of the total cost of college, compared with 78 percent at the least wealthy colleges.

I think another reason why I go back and forth on this issue is that I personally feel that I have gained, both materially and immaterially, from attending an elite institution - but that cannot justify the unfairness and inequity of the structure as it stands. Or as another blogger at Room for Debate succinctly states the problem:

Elite colleges are economically and personally productive for individuals lucky enough to attend them. The real issue is what this means for those who do not attend, and for the promise of upward mobility in our society as a whole.

It is not that the elite colleges don’t work. It is that they work too well as passive agents for the intergenerational reproduction of elites.

In these times, I think there is a serious problem of misapprehending the conditions that produce an individual's access and ability to attend an elite institution as that individual's merit. "Lucky enough" glosses over the so-called accident of birth intersecting with contrived particularities: I happened to be born in the United States as a result of my parents meeting during the medical residencies in New York City, following changes in American immigration law that themselves resulted from a "shortage" of doctors and nurses. I was raised in a so-called upper-middle-class suburb with "good" public schools where teachers and guidance counselors were familiar with the college application process, and took an interest in me - and so on.

When I think about what hopes I have for Beanie and Bubbie - I hope they will be as "lucky" as I have been. Which means not necessarily that I wish for them to attend elite institutions themselves, but that the promise of living lives of significance will remain in reach. For everyone.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Phenotypical markers

I distinctly remember the day that I was taught that the "peach" crayon was the one for "skin color." It was during a summer day camp that the municipal parks and recreation department ran. There was a cluster of 2nd grade girls sitting around, drawing and coloring, and one of the girls started scrounging through the bucket of crayons, looking for "peach."

When I asked to borrow it, she looked at me and said no - because it was not my skin color.

"Peach" became "white," but apparently, there was no good way to color "yellow" or "red" or "black."

So, on the one hand, I like the idea behind Crayola's "multicultural" markers, crayons, and colored pencils.

On the other hand, I find the "multicultural" label a bit misleading. As StraightMan just said, talking over his shoulder at me: "Phenotypical, not multicultural."


BTW, it is moments like this - when he can say exactly what it is that I am thinking without me knowing how to put it into words - that remind me why I have been married to StraightMan for 14 years (as of tomorrow).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Curtains for anthropology?

Colleagues in my department circulated two articles reporting on the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). In particular, the reports focused on the bleakness of the present and future state of anthropology – which made me wonder whether or not StraightMan and I had attended the AAA in an alternative reality. Tis true that the job market has reached the depths of suckitude. Yet, the amount of engagement seems as high as ever. At the same time, anthropologists seem to be taking to heart the notion that they ought to demonstrating and communicating the relevance of what we do.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported primarily on that old chestnut in American anthropology: The four fields of anthropology (archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology) are so divided that it is threatening the discipline. Presented as Exhibit A of the embattled and embittering state of anthropology: A session featuring graduate students (which no doubt contributes to the sense of embattlement and embitterment…) commenting on the intensity of specialization within the subfields, i.e., how and why archaeologists and linguistic anthropologists cannot understand each other’s jargon.

Inside Higher Ed reported:

It is no secret that these are hard times for anthropology. The discipline claims little more than one-half of 1 percent of undergraduate degrees conferred, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Anthropology departments across the country have been rebranded or threatened with being merged or scrapped; jobs have been targeted.

Hard times for anthropology? As far as I know, the number of undergraduate degrees in anthropology is itself not in decline. Combined departments of anthropology and sociology have been more the rule than the exception at colleges and universities. Unfortunately, it is not only anthropology programs and positions being scrapped or targeted, but to cite the particular example of the University at Albany, classics, foreign languages, and theater. It is not only hard times for anthropology, but in fact, hard times for the liberal arts and for anything that smacks of any intellectual life.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Day at the Museum

StraightMan and I are visiting my family in northern NJ. We had parked Beanie and Bubbie with my parents for a few days while we attending the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association in New Orleans.

I know: How lucky are we?!

When we arrived at my parents’ home on Sunday evening, the kids were waiting for us. We have not parted company from them since. I know: How lucky are we.

StraightMan and I, not wanting to wear out our (or especially our kids’) welcome, whisked our family of four into the city for a morning at the American Museum of Natural History. My sister, who lives and works in the city, joined us.

“It’s kind of funny to go to the Museum of Natural History with two anthropologists and their kids,” she remarked to me.

To which I might have said: It’s kind of funny for two anthropologists to go to the AMNH with their kids who have watched “Night at the Museum.” When I say “funny,” I mean not funny-haha, but funny-strange. Or more like funny-mortifying.

“Gum-Gum,” Bubbie declares, his treble pitch bouncing around the august halls of the museum. “I want to see Gum-Gum.”

“Is it Gum-Gum,” Beanie asks at similar volume, then lowers her voice, “or is it Dum-Dum?” She lowers her voice because “Dum-Dum” is like saying “stupid,” which in our family, we have tried to teach our children that we do not use this word to describe people. So, Beanie, being a rather kind kid (also, a goody-goody), feels a bit wary about saying “Dum-Dum.” Especially in front of her parents.

We found Dum-Dum in the Hall of Pacific Peoples. Bubbie had a 10-minute conversation with him. No exaggeration.

It turns out that a lot of kids in the ages 3 and up set have seen the movie - and are taking their parents on a "Night at the Museum" tour.

Other highlights from our “Night at the Museum” tour: Saying hello to Theodore Roosevelt, who is neither made of wax nor of Robin Williams, as in the movie. Seeing the dinosaur that in the movie played fetch in the atrium. Looking for the lions among the African mammals.

However, we did not find Sacajawea or dioramas of the Roman Empire and Manifest Destiny that features miniature likenesses of Owen Wilson – or as Bubbie put it, “little people who talk.”

Beanie, who has a keen interest in non-human primates, was looking for Dexter, the capuchin monkey in the movie who caused such havoc for Ben Stiller.

While viewing the stuffed chimpanzees and gorillas, Beanie asked: “Are they real?” So, I explained that back when the museum had been founded, it had been thought acceptable to hunt “exotic” animals, including monkeys and apes. As we walked through the Hall of Primates, Beanie remarked: “It makes me sad to see that the gorillas had to be dead to be in the museum.”


This brings me to the unease that I feel - and that anthropologists today generally feel - about a place like the American Museum of Natural History. For me, the museum is arguably more interesting as an example of the history of science than as a source of "science" itself. It is a place full of relics, but it is itself also a relic of practices and ideas of science in the past.

Yet, if the number of school buses pulling off Central Park West is any indication, the American Museum of Natural History is as popular a destination as ever as a source of "science" for the public. However, it also makes me wonder (or worry) about the state of science education today.

On the one hand, the museum can inspire in kids on a school field trip an interest in anthropology, paleontology, and astronomy. On other hand, how do parents and teachers follow up on a kid's interest, once sparked?

There seems to me a widening gap between what the specialists study (and discuss among themselves in venues like the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association) and what the public learns.

It is not necessarily that the museum provides incorrect information, but I think it is incomplete.

In order for exhibits like the Hall of African Mammals or the Hall of Primates to make sense, there ought to be more contextualization offered: The museum might offer commentary on the museum itself. Like the fact that the "exotic" animals were hunted, stuffed, and donated to the museum. Explaining this past makes the exhibit more, not less valid as an instrument for science education.

Also, I think anthropologists have a stake in a Day at the Museum: Franz Boas, regarded as the "father" of American anthropology, and Margaret Mead, his student and the most famous anthropologist in her time, both served as curators at the museum, so it is a significant site in the production of anthropological knowledge. In fact, there is a rather interesting exhibit on Margaret Mead's career at AMNH in the Hall of Pacific Peoples. It is rather striking that the exhibit includes color photographs of "change" occurring in Melanesia and Polynesia, like a man in "native" dress standing at a fast-food counter. There is otherwise little room in the museum to acknowledge what it means to be, say, Pacific Peoples today. The exhibit is situated, literally, in a passage that leads to the Hall of Pacific Peoples, which I think demonstrates how the architecture of the museum itself can be used to retell the story of the museum and its exhibits.

I think the history of science requires more attention in the American Museum of Natural History, in part because it is part of our cultural history and in part to demystify science as a process not just of discovery, but of revelation that is painstakingly derived, sometimes through reinterpretation.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why we all need recess!

Here is another instance of our conventional wisdom being proved to be quite wise: All work and no play makes us unhappy, unhealthy, and ultimately, unproductive.

Jane Brody in today's Personal Health column in the NYT reports on the benefits of what public health professor Tori Yancey calls “Instant Recess — the title of her new book (University of California Press), in which she demonstrates the value of two 10-minute breaks of enjoyable communal activity as part of people’s everyday lives."

I cheer anytime anyone says that I need not exercise in swaths of time that I simply do not have. Not only that, I actually kind of hate exercise. There. I said it.

Yet, since June 2009, I have stuck to an almost-daily routine of what I call micro-running, which involves dropping off one child (or occasionally, two children) at child-care, school, or summer camp, then running a short "loop" back home. It used to take about 10 minutes to run the loop, but I have surprised myself with how much easier the hills seem to take. Rather than making the loop longer, I have been challenging myself by picking up the pace.

I look forward to microruns as a way to clear my mind and ready myself for work. However, I readily admit to enjoying other benefits of exercise: Ah, vanity. I am now down to my pre-childbearing weight - not just pre-Bubbie, but pre-Beanie.

Re-finding my shape occasioned a visit to H&M yesterday after my sister remarked on the pre-Beanie jeans that I was wearing: "Wow, those are old." Referring not so much to their faded condition, but to their lamentable lack of fashion. Ouch. Because regardless of whether or not we "care" about style, it hurts to know that we do not have it. I mean, I could not even claim that I was being anti-fashion: Got to know the rules in order to break them. Quite the opposite: I had felt so good about being able to fit into them after all this time! It made me feel like the 7th grader who finally is teased to awareness that his mother has been dressing him in pants with elasticated waist bands. Oh, wait. That was StraightMan's story.

Enough about sartorial sense, or lack thereof. As a parenthropologist, I took particular interest in instant recess for kids:

Likewise, she said, 10-minute exercise breaks during the school day could do more to forward the goals of No Child Left Behind than double that amount of time spent trying to stuff math and English into students’ heads. She cited a federally financed study by the University of Kansas conducted at 24 low-income public schools.

The study, which included a matched control group, found that 10-minute activity breaks, usually done to music, led to improved scores in math, spelling and composition among the participants. The students also increased their activity levels outside school, on weekdays and weekends, and gained less weight than those in the schools who did not institute fitness breaks.

This study is especially telling because in schools around the country, physical education classes and outdoor recess have fallen prey to the demands to improve test scores.

Finally. I now have a public health justification for turning up the volume and having a little Pet Shop Boys moment in the middle of my day.

Mine might not be the majority opinion, but I think recess ought to be treated like lunch: All kids need to have it. This means also rethinking recess as a "privilege" that becomes taken away: Based on talk with parents and teachers, it seems like the same kids (especially boys) lose recess over and over again. I understand the aims of adults trying to guide kids meaningfully to understand the consequences of their actions, but it seems to me both that losing recess does not result in real understanding and that any "correction" in behavior resulting from losing recess will be a short-term gain.

I tend to think that the kids who "act out" the most probably have the most need also to be guided toward acting out productively.

StraightMan suggests that instead of losing recess, kids who act out should be required to run laps around the playground.

I say there ought to be mandatory "Macarena."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The national conversation that is not being had

The New York Times reported last week on gaps in achievement - as measured in reading and math tests administered in 4th and 8th grade - that exist between black and white boys:

Only 12 percent of black fourth-grade boys are proficient in reading, compared with 38 percent of white boys, and only 12 percent of black eighth-grade boys are proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white boys.

Poverty alone does not seem to explain the differences: poor white boys do just as well as African-American boys who do not live in poverty, measured by whether they qualify for subsidized school lunches.

What I find interesting is the prevailing acceptance of the idea that "poverty" is the problem here - and the consternation being churned because "poverty" appears not to be the answer, or at least not the only answer:

“There’s accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten,” said Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard. “They have to do with a lot of sociological and historical forces. In order to address those, we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have.”

Those include “conversations about early childhood parenting practices,” Dr. Ferguson said. “The activities that parents conduct with their 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. How much we talk to them, the ways we talk to them, the ways we enforce discipline, the ways we encourage them to think and develop a sense of autonomy.”

To be honest, I was surprised that the "sociological and historical forces" and the "conversations that people are unwilling to have" referred to "early childhood parenting practices."

From where I perch, the chatter about parenting sounds like a deafening roar.

Has it become more comfortable for we the Nacirema to discuss "poverty" because we will not discuss race?

Back from outer space

Or more precisely from the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association.

Beanie and Bubbie spent the last few days with my parents! So, it was just StraightMan and me in New Orleans. With thousands of other anthropologists. Not to mention Saints fans. Who are even dat much more annoying than anthropologists.


Is it not a truth in life that the time when you are busiest at work is right before a break or a vacation?

It is also a truth that in the higher education-industrial complex in which I work, a break is never a break: Thanksgiving week and summer included.



Finally, here is more evidence that "sucks" might be the new normal. Or is it just evidence of the kind of company I keep?

Friends on Facebook have been sharing the following two links that appear to be making the rounds among faculty: "So you want to get a PhD in the Humanities" and "One professor's fantasy".

I take the popularity of the links as a sign that morale among the professoriate is rather low at this time. When I started teaching, just five years ago, I actually talked about graduate school as an option that motivated majors ought to consider! Not any more.

I am conscious of the fact that I directly have benefited from the expansion of academia / higher education in terms of both my education (having had the privilege of attending an elite liberal arts college and a premier public research university), and my employment (as a tenure-track professor at a four-year public college).

However, I also think it is important and necessary to examine the effects of that expansion critically. We need to ask both whether or not colleges and universities really are prepared for the students that they are admitting, and whether or not the students really are prepared for college or university.

Simply expanding higher education is not the same as democratizing it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Seoul sister

As I was logging onto the Web to check my Inbox, the title "Going Korean" caught my eye on the New York Times, which is the home page on my browser.

Kyopos and / or the people who know and live with us might want to read it: To know and live with us with an understanding of why we live in mortal terror of ajooma.

When among acquaintances and casual friends, I am vigilant to string up white lies like police tape around my personal details. But a nod from any woman born earlier than 1970 on our Asian peninsula flanked by the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea, however, awakens pre-programmed behaviors I can’t control. I answer every question to the best of my ability, and make my own polite inquiries, always careful to employ deferential syntax, the doily-lined, dustier version of the language that rarely appears in pop songs or the revenge trilogies I stream from the Internet.

I remember when I worked briefly at a maternity clothes store (as part of anthropological research), a well-heeled Asian woman about my mother's age, carrying a nice purse, came in with her pregnant daughter, who was about my age, and like me, wearing no make-up. Ajooma looked me up and down, addressed me in Korean, and asked me oh-so-sweetly to do a good job taking care of her daughter, who was a doctor, and had no time to shop, but needed new clothes. The daughter looked at me pleadingly: Can we do this quickly? My mother is embarrassing me. Please do not hate me. When I was in high school, I dyed my hair blond and ran around with a white boyfriend with a Flock of Seagulls haircut. My mother, though she never speaks of it, has not forgotten. Or so I thought I could hear her trying to tell me...

Unfortunately, both the daughter and myself were much. too. weak. to counter ajooma. Even the non-Korean store manager was powerless to do much other than fetch additional sizes and colors.

BTW, author Mary H.K. Choi is spot-on about David Chang. When StraightMan and I had my celebratory 40th birthday lunch at Momofuku, part of the enjoyment, I felt, was being "in" on the joke: I liken it to Ding Dongs made "upscale" with molten Valrona chocolate and creme freche. There we sat, eating Korean comfort food made with ingredients whose organicity / sustainability / provenance would register no response from my mother. "Heirloom pig? Who care? Just more expensive," I can hear her saying now. Is she wrong?

As I get older, I sometimes wish I were a bit more Korean because then I, too, could become an ajooma.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Team players need not apply

For both the subjects and writers of recommendation letters in academia / higher ed, this piece (and the comments) in today's Inside Higher Ed is worth a gander:

You are reading a letter of recommendation that praises a candidate for a faculty job as being "caring," "sensitive," "compassionate," or a "supportive colleague." Whom do you picture?

New research suggests that to faculty search committees, such words probably conjure up a woman -- and probably a candidate who doesn't get the job. The scholars who conducted the research believe they may have pinpointed one reason for the "leaky pipeline" that frustrates so many academics, who see that the percentage of women in senior faculty jobs continues to lag the percentage of those in junior positions and that the share in junior positions continues to lag those earning doctorates.

The research is based on a content analysis of 624 letters of recommendation submitted on behalf of 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at an unidentified research university. The study found patterns in which different kinds of words were more likely to be used to describe women, while other words were more often used to describe men.

Sadly, while the results are not surprising - the caring, sensitive, compassionate, and supportive candidate is the one who does not become your colleague - the study has me thinking about how I characterize my colleagues and my students, particularly as I find myself writing recommendation letters for jobs and graduate schools.

I suppose that I might rephrase "collegiality" and "consensus building" as "professionalism" and "leadership." However. I hate that the advice is to "stay away from communal words, whether writing on behalf of men or women."

Cue Elvis Costello: "What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?"

A comment on the comments on Inside Higher Ed:

Predictably, there are comments that this is not really "about" gender, as in women and men, because men now have as equally hard a time being hired.

To which I must retort: How about entertaining the idea that "gender" is not really only about women and men? That it might be about arrangements of social relationships - significantly, inequalities - that both reflect and inflect ideas and practices of "women" and "men" in the first place?

One of the comments called attention to the fact that the so-called communal words refer to ideas that academia has celebrated as its values - and the so-called agentive words refer to ideas that "private enterprise" celebrates.

Unfortunately, I think there is a relationship between the devaluing of academic values and the privileging of corporate values in academia / higher ed - and the gendering of academia as communal / female and private enterprise as agentive / male.


On the bright side: Tina Fey was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for Humor - only the third woman to receive it, and at 40, the youngest ever recipient. Hooray for funny, smart, female, and 40! That is for all my gal pals :)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On why I have not worked on my book revision in about a month

StraightMan and I share the responsibilities of Beanie's and Bubbie's drop-off's and pick-up's at their respective schools. I think it is important to talk with their teachers and the other kiddos and their parents. Also, I just like holding their little hands and walking with them, hearing their little thoughts. Beanie asks questions like why "tissue" can be something you blow your nose with or what your body is made of - I have no answer. Bubbie seems to notice every crack, twig, and drop of water on the pavement.

This morning, I dropped off Bubbie at nursery school, where he seems to be thriving.

When I say "dropped off," I mean that I walked him there, leaving the house about 20 minutes before 9am, after feeding him a "second" breakfast as he hardly ate his first, which StraightMan served around 6:45am, then bundling his reluctant little body in boots, sweatshirt, winter jacket, mittens, and hat after locating his favorite Matchbox car and packing it into his backpack. At nursery school, unbundling Bubbie, accompanying him into the classroom where we have a routine where I bumble at locating his name tag, then sit down and read a story book before I walk him to the table where a teacher is helping other children use scissors and glue sticks to create a craft that fits with the day's lesson, which was, most fittingly, adaptation. (Good luck with that, I think.)

When I arrived home after a micro-run - my almost-daily exercise, which I fit into my day because it requires dropping off a child at school, then returning home to eat breakfast and ready myself for the rest of the day - it was about 9:20am.

In other words, "dropping off" Bubbie is a multi-step process from door-to-door-to-door that requires at least 40 minutes.

I mention this because when I arrived at home, about eight hours later, I found on my desk, a photocopy of the first page of the Acknowledgements to Kay Anderson's 2008 book, Race and the Crisis of Humanism.

No, I have not read the book. StraightMan, aka LuckyHank, is on sabbatical: He has read it. He left me the page, noting that it reminded him of me: This is what counts as romance between two anthropologists married almost 14 years.

I doubt I am alone in sensing over the past 10 years the loss of a profession that once moved to a rhythm that fostered creative surges and pauses. This was a profession that felt alive to its own distinctive disposition - that winged immersion in ideas reigned in by the labour of composition. The challenges in producing this book have had less to do with the pressure of multiple relocations..., plus the arrival at an advanced age of a much-wanted but unexpected child. Mostly the experience has been an interior wrestle with an intensifying regime of academic production that seems increasingly hostile to sustained projects of the kind this one, in intellectual terms, has necessarily been. To be sure, the privileges of a writing profession remain (tenuously) intact. I am thinking of those riveting moments in the creative process when the parts appear to converge in a plot that drives and exceeds them. But, still, there is cause to highlight wherever possible the blindspots in an academic culture that increasingly measures 'output' as if it actually hails, machine-like, from the buried chambers of a mind divorced from all its embodied and circumstantial conditionings.

I might add that what can be said of scholarly writing can be said also of scholarly teaching.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mother's little helper

For the busy parenthropologist on your Christmas list, I recommend the Clarity Agenda ("Planners for Busy Women") from Whomi.

This parenthropologist uses the color-coded lines to keep track of weekly schedules for herself (four classes, four committees, office hours, weekly undergraduate club meetings, every-other-weekly department meetings, etc.), StraightMan (a lot less right now, as LuckyHank is currently on sabbatical...), Beanie (ballet on Monday, after-school pick-up / play-date swaps with her friend Pants on three afternoons, piano on Friday, and swimming on Saturday - I feel lucky that after having given soccer a go last spring and summer, she decided that she does not like it all that much, but I dread the day when she will be able to audition for "The Nutcracker" and join the Y swim team, as she has declared to me that she intends to do next year...), and Bubbie (child care three days a week, nursery school two mornings a week, and ballet and music on Saturday).

Clarity? I admit: More like Insanity. How did we become so apparently over-scheduled? Is the Whomi helping me keep it together? Or is it an enabler?

It is the question that preoccupies me: Shall I go with Folk Foliage, Rings, or Ginko?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

First grader as art critic

In previous posts, I have reported on Beanie's development as a literary critic, including her structuralist reading of Junie B. Jones.

It turns out that Beanie also has begun to articulate her ideas about visual art. As evidenced above.

To clarify, the "bad picture" on top (of an airplane with passengers visible in the windows) "needs more detail and a sky." Note that the critic demands that it be "taken down" from a display space on the refrigerator door. The "good picture" below it "has detail and lots of color."


So, the blog fell victim to being overwhelmed with work, and otherwise under-inspired. The two go hand in hand.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sign of the times

Huh. Not sure what to make of this photograph taken at the Jon Stewart / Stephen Colbert rally and posted on Inside Higher Ed. Am I supposed to laugh because I also am supposed agree - or because (to be honest) I find it rather ludicrous?

I think there is a lot more to say about "evidence-based" discourse. Certainly there ought to be more careful and considered study of, say, teaching and prenatal care, to mention two arenas where a need for more "evidence-based" practice is being claimed. However, "evidence-based" discourse seems to be grounded in narrow functionalism, with little interest in, say, ritual.

Yet, rituals accomplish important, meaningful, and necessary work for us as members of communities. I mean, we all engage in any number of apparently unimportant, meaningless, and unnecessary - and unevidenced - practices whose effects might be missed when they become eliminated.

There is a lot more to say. Alas, I am not the parenthropologist to do it at this moment.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference (3)

Last Friday, I had the privilege of giving a keynote lecture at the city school district’s teachers conference on diversity. This week, I am posting excerpts from my talk, “Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference: Perspectives from Parenthropology.” Here is part 3:

As a parenthropologist, I have come to think that the difficulty of talking and listening to kids about difference comes in part from our own discomfort with talking and listening about difference among ourselves, as parents and teachers. We need to create “the talk” about race along the lines of “the talk” about reproduction. In fact, there are now resources offering thoughtful advice to parents and teachers on talking and listening to kids about difference. Parents magazine, on their Web site, has an article on “Raising a Child Who Respects Difference” that suggest to parents: “First, Forget ‘Color Blindness’” and “Don’t Wait for Them to Bring It Up.” The Southern Poverty Law Center develops and distributes free materials for K-12 teachers through its Teaching Tolerance Web site. There is now even an iPhone app for this: The Race Awareness Project has developed two “games,” one called “Guess My Race” and another called “Who Am I,” which were designed to help (and guide) parents through conversations about race with their pre-school and elementary school-aged kids.

I suggest also that in order to create “the talk,” we as parents and teachers need to be clear about the words that we use. So, in the hopes that we can find the words for us to use, here is what anthropologists have to say about two ways of talking about difference that are especially salient in the United States today – race and culture.

I noted earlier that as an anthropologist, I am trained in a discipline that is concerned with both universality and diversity. What makes us the same? What makes us different? Anthropology also is distinctive in its holistic approach, in which we consider any given dimension of human experience as interconnected with still others. For example, is food a matter of physiological need, economic activity, religious law, local custom, climate change – or all of the above? The holism of anthropology is reflected in the fact that the discipline is comprised of sub-disciplines: The four fields of archaeology, biological or physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. Four-fields anthropology became organized in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, building upon earlier traditions in the study of human “civilization,” which reflected then current concerns with differences among people – in their physical appearance, in their behaviors and beliefs, in the environments and conditions in which they lived – which were being encountered in travel and exploration and trade globally.

Following upon a much older philosophical tradition that so-called inner qualities, such as intelligence, were manifested in outer qualities, in particular appearance, it was thought that traits such as skin color could be interpreted as markers or even expressions of emotional, intellectual, and other “essential” characteristics. In fact, early and mid-19th century anatomists and physiologists – the fore-bearers of biological or physical anthropology – were involved in efforts to locate the sources of difference in the human body itself, taking measurements and creating scales that defined the “races” of humankind. In addition, it was claimed that the “races” themselves had developed separately, with each race representing “sub-species” of humanity, and “steps” in human evolution. Race became an explanation, or rather an excuse, for political, economic, and social policies that segregated and subjugated peoples.

This 19th century concept of biological “race” has been discredited in the work of 20th century scientists, including anthropologists, who emphasize the lack of concordance in so-called racial traits: Not only does difference in physical appearance not correspond with difference in emotional or intellectual characteristics, but even racialized traits associated with physical appearance (such as skin color, eye color, hair texture, eye and nose shape, and so on) do not correspond with each other. Nor is race coded in our DNA. Even to the trained eyes of geneticists, human DNA looks remarkably the same: There is more genetic variation in penguins and in fruit flies than there is in humans. In fact, geneticists tell us that two individuals who would be classified, according to physical appearance, as members of the same race, are likely to have as many or even more differences in their mitochondrial DNA as two individuals classified as members of two different races. Our genes provide evidence of the shared origins of modern humans in Africa. We are, indeed, a single race.

So, then how do we make sense of difference in physical appearance, which in the United States today, we continue to describe as “race”? Clearly, human biological variation exists, but what it tells us is a story about the migration of modern humans, out of Africa, to the far reaches of the globe, which is itself a remarkable tale with the power to excite the imagination. Human biological variation tells us a story about certain sets of genes arriving at the right time and place to be favored, or at least not disadvantaged, for survival – like darker skin closer to the equator and lighter skin in regions further flung. In other words, the difference in physical appearance that Americans call race could be described as a side effect of ancestry.

The discrediting of the 19th century concept of biological race and the 20th century recognition of human biological variation are developments connected also with a completely different way of thinking about differences – that is, the concept of culture. Defining and refining the concept of culture has consumed anthropologists for the last century, but at heart, culture is a way of talking about difference as behaviors and beliefs that are shared in groups through learning and teaching. The concept of culture is, in part, a reaction to the concept of race: It asserts that customs and habits are invented and become acquired. They are not innate to bodies and inherited through blood and genes. Culture also suggests that the most important and meaningful differences between people are the ones that they have learned since childhood then continue to teach to their own children. An example of the power of culture is, unfortunately, the persistence of the idea that “race” describes and explains differences between people.

As a parenthropologist, I suggest that it is critical that we, as teachers and parents, recognize the significance of what we do in our work with children – and the difference it can make. A few weeks ago, my daughter came home from school, bursting with a story that she told us at dinner. She had read a book called Amazing Grace, about a girl who wanted to be Peter Pan in her class play, despite discouragement from other children that Peter Pan was not a girl and Peter Pan was not black like Grace. My daughter told us in no uncertain terms that these were not good reasons and that she herself could be Peter Pan, just like Barack Obama could be president. Not only can we, as teachers and parents, make and re-make the meaning of difference by talking and listening to kids, but I think it also might be the only real hope that we have.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference (2)

Last Friday, I had the privilege of giving a keynote lecture at the city school district’s teachers conference on diversity. This week, I am posting excerpts from my talk, “Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference: Perspectives from Parenthropology.” Here is part 2:

I find it striking that race seem to be “taboo” topics while, for example, sex and gender have become less so. “The talk” about reproduction has become a rite of passage in American life that is accepted and expected as part of the raising of children. There also are a number of resources offering thoughtful advice to grown-ups on what to say and what not to say. For example, the advice today is that parents ought to use the correct anatomical terms, not euphemisms, to refer to body parts, starting even at an early age – which lays the foundation for unashamed, open and honest, communication. At home, parents exercise critical thinking about gender, dressing their infant daughters in blue and encouraging their toddler sons to play with dolls. At school, teachers remind their students that there is no difference in what girls and boys can accomplish. As a culture and society, we recognize the significance of talking and listening to kids about sex and gender.

Yet when it comes to race, there is no “talk.” For example, when young children talk too loudly about Bubbie’s mother being “a Chinese lady,” their parents hush them and rush them off. I suspect that what children are explicitly told is that is race and ethnicity are not “nice” to talk about – and they become implicitly taught that race ought not be talked about at all. Indeed, in their 2009 book NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman cite a 2007 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, which found that among 17,000 families with kindergarteners, 45% said they never or almost never discussed race issues with their children. The rates varied, however, between white and nonwhite families: 75% of white parents said they never or almost never talk about race.

Recently, I discussed this statistic in a class that I currently am teaching on the Anthropology of North America. Most of my students identify themselves as white, with a few students who describe themselves as “mixed heritage.” Many of my students, both white and “mixed heritage,” described coming from communities that they did not consider “diverse,” at least in terms of race and ethnicity. Yet, some students voiced their belief that not being “diverse” did not mean that diversity was not a concern for their communities or for them. After all, they encounter difference in college and in “the rest of their lives.” They perceive difference as portrayed in the movies and TV shows that they watch or the music that they hear – and as one student commented, they can either accept the media portrayals as truth or question them. We as parents and teachers must be concerned about the meanings that become attached to difference. We must question whether or not we are guiding kids to understand what difference does and does not mean.

Students in my class speculated that not talking about race is about attempting to achieve an ideal of color blindness, because so many Americans want so much for race not to matter. Yet, my students also recognized that while color blindness might be an ideal, it is not our reality. In Nurture Shock, Bronson and Merryman review recent research in psychology that finds children as young as six months old perceiving the differences in physical appearance that we in the United States call race – that is, skin color. This overturns the assumption that we teach our children to perceive difference. In fact, what we do is to teach our children how to make sense of difference that they already perceive. So, what do we teach our children when we hush them and tell them that race ought not to be discussed – and if they are not learning from us, then from whom are they learning, and what are they learning?

While the norm for white parents has been not to talk about race, the norm for non-white parents has been to discuss difference actively. Sociologist Erin Winkler, in a recent account of African-American families, describes the importance and meaning, for African-American mothers, of teaching their children both to take pride in their identity and learn how to negotiate prejudice directed against them. In her account, titled “ ‘It’s Like Arming Them’: African American Mothers’ Views on Racial Socialization,” Winkler quotes a woman who tells her: “I guess with my kids, I’m trying to teach them that, you know, you’re going to have to grow up and be a little alert, but, you know, don’t lose your humanity about it. Don’t just assume that all of them are like that.” When parents and other trusted adults actively talk and listen to children about difference, they offer guidance on what it does and does not mean.

A student in my class suggested that Americans today increasingly look to institutions other than family to teach their children the facts about reproduction, and the facts about difference. In particular, they look to the schools. So, what you – what we – say as teachers and parents, and how we listen to children, and how we guide them with our actions matters more than ever. We can teach them to talk and listen openly, honestly, and respectfully about difference, which, as a parenthropologist, I think is the most significant lesson for us all. We can answer our children’s questions with what we know about difference – what it does and does not mean.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference (1)

Last Friday, I had the privilege of giving a keynote lecture at the city school district’s teachers conference on diversity. This week, I will be posting excerpts from my talk, “Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference: Perspectives from Parenthropology.” Here is part 1:

The purpose of my talk is to remind ourselves of why it is important and meaningful to talk and listen to kids about difference, and to consider why we as adults refrain too often from this discussion, not only with children, but also among ourselves. I also offer my own thoughts on how we, as parents and teachers, might find ways of talking and listening that work for us all. In particular, I offer insights and approaches from the discipline in which I am trained, anthropology, which has engaged in more than 100 years of discussion on the meaning of difference.

Look around our classrooms and communities or read the news, both local and national, and it is hard not to notice that differences between people matter – even or, I suggest, especially in communities as apparently “homogeneous” as our community. These differences can include race, ethnicity, culture, language, class, gender, religion, and ability, among countless other ways that we might distinguish ourselves and each other. In my talk today, I will focus particularly on race and culture because they have been, and continue to be, especially powerful ideas and practices about difference among people in the United States and around the world today.

We know from our own experiences that difference can be cause for celebration and pride, and for conflict and pain. Children are no less aware of and sensitive to difference than adults are. They see it around them – even despite, for example, what we grown-ups might consider our well-intentioned efforts to keep our kids “color-blind.” They also observe our reactions, witness our behavior, and look to us as models for how they themselves ought to act and think. So, it seems to me that our challenge as teachers and parents is to help children make sense of what difference does and does not mean in our world today. At the same time, it seems to me that we might cultivate in children a sense of how we might think and act differently about difference. After all, we – adults and children alike – are not only members of our society and culture, we are also the makers and breakers of our own rules and customs. There is always, then, the possibility for change. This is why it seems to me important and meaningful for us to consider the matter of talking and listening to kids about difference – and for us, as teachers and parents, to be able to articulate a case for having this conversation to those who might require persuasion. In this talk, I offer words that you might use.

My interest in how we talk and listen to kids about difference emerges from my concerns as a second-generation Korean American raising children of “mixed” heritage. On their father’s side, my children can claim roots in Italy, Germany, and other parts of Europe. Initially, I thought simply celebrating our family’s mixed heritage might be enough – that is, passively exposing them to the “positive” meanings of difference.

Then my daughter came home from school and asked me: “Why is it so important about Barack Obama?” Being a college professor, I demurred – I deflected the question back to her so that I could understand what she was asking me. I asked her: “What do you know about Barack Obama?” She told me: “Everyone is excited that he is running for president. Why?” So, I told her: “A long time ago, before your grandparents and your great-grandparents were born, some people, even a lot of people, in America believed that someone who looked like Barack Obama could never be president, could not go to school like you can, and even could belong to someone else who owned him.” Since then, Beanie and I have read stories together about enslavement and the Underground Railroad, and about heroes of the civil rights movement, like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. We have talked about how she, with a Korean American mother and a white American father, is like Barack Obama, who had a white American mother and a black Kenyan father.

Talking and listening to my daughter has changed my mind about whether or not “passive exposure” to race and ethnicity, and history and heritage is enough. I think we must talk and listen to kids about difference actively. If we do not guide our children on how to understand difference, then they will take their ideas from other sources who might not share the same cares and concerns that we have or who might not take the time and effort to explain what difference does and does not mean.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Child's play

With parents both professors, I suppose there is no escaping it: Beanie has a strong didactic streak in her.

Coupled with sibling rivalry, the result is this: I wake this morning to hear Principal Beanie telling her student, Bubbie, that he had moved from green to yellow to red to blue for his behavior - and that she will be sending a Sad Note home to his parents.

See the above. Completely unintentional visual punning: I "blocked" the names.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Just because I feel like I need to say it

Anita Hill, you owe no one any apologies for what you yourself endured during the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The awful truth

This piece, "Furlough Realities," posted today on Inside Higher Ed, is worth reading whether or not "furlough" has entered the discourse on your campus.

It makes the point that b/c furloughed faculty are not directed not to allow the furlough affect with their teaching and service responsibilities - and nor would they wish for it to - the effect (in particular for the untenured) is that furloughed faculty do exactly the same work, but for less pay. A so-called furlough is in fact an unacknowledged pay cut.

(Indeed, last spring, there was talk of furlough on my campus, which would have meant that I would not be paid for classes I already had taught, b/c I am paid every two weeks for work I already accomplished the two weeks prior.)

I share author Shaun Johnson's frustration that so much of the work that professors (and educators in general) do is taken for granted:

So much of what a successful K-12 or college educator must do to make the classroom operate effectively is done behind the scenes. In fact, the preparation done privately is absolutely essential to the public face of the profession, which is in the classroom. Whenever a new mandate or policy rolls out, a new curriculum, or certification requirement, it’s dumped on the backs of teachers. We are told that our extra duties must not in any way compromise time with the students. Teachers who have already run out of time weeks ago perpetually take the minutes and hours and blood out of their private preparation, which then inevitably creeps into educators’ personal lives. Educators take their jobs very personally and our performance, or lack thereof, is interpreted by society as a personal virtue. If we are perceived as not burning the midnight oil for the sake of our students, then there must be something wrong with us. It’s a character flaw and we therefore should find another line of work.

What’s the connection to higher education and the furlough concept? Sacrifices must come out of my private responsibilities as an educator. The powers that be know full well that for any professor who wants to keep his or her job, which is based on satisfactory teaching, research, and service, nothing meaningful will be cast aside. Many of us will just keep right on working as usual with not one thing taken off our plate.

In other words, professors do not simply waltz in, tell a few lame stories, then take the summers off.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Keeping up with The Times

This story on the comeback of the idea of a "culture of poverty" became one of the most e-mailed on The New York Times.

I think it is striking that the problem with "culture of poverty" concept is depicted primarily as a problem of political correctness - and that all of the contemporary scholars quoted in the story are sociologists!

I think it is critical to recognize the ways in which the concept of "culture" itself had been bowdlerized and essentialized in Daniel Patrick Moynahan's evocation of a "culture of poverty." Oscar Lewis himself, as an anthropologist, espoused a more nuanced understanding of culture, and wrote critically about the structures the produce poverty.

"Culture," which anthropologists use generally to draw attention to the ways in which humans learn / teach the practices and ideas that define us, can be a productive explanation for how practices and ideas become reproduced over generations. Or re-produced: That is, made and remade.

There are "many new and varied definitions of culture," the NYT notes, "but they all differ from the ’60s-era model in these crucial respects: Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty."

In fact, anthropologists long have been engaged in articulating a dynamic concept of culture - and even arguing for an abandonment of "culture" b/c of the ways in which it has come to be used commonly as an essentializing explanation for difference: "That's just their culture."

So, this issue is not, for me, political correctness, but "correctness": Moynahan's rendering of a "culture of poverty" simply does not apply the concept of culture in a way that anthropologists understand as "correct."

I am not especially interested in disciplinary policing, but given that culture is a core concept, arguably even the concept (alongside "race") at the foundation of anthropology, it just seems to me that if you want to know what the current state of the art / science on "culture" is, then you ought to talk to anthropologists.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Crafting selves

Really interesting QOTD (from a few days back...) and discussion at martinimade - I agree with the comment that there might be a book that Adrienne Martini ought to write about the meaning of craft/s for American women today :)

Earlier this summer, Adrienne's most recent book, Sweater Quest, had me pondering, as an anthropologist will, why are these particular people doing what they do at this particular moment? Which led me to consider the political economy of craft.

It might be true, at least in part, that American women today turn to craft/s b/c they have the means to do so (including time and / or a certain amount of money to be able to do so, as hand-crafted generally is recognized not necessarily to be more "economical" than store-bought...) Or, as I had suggested, that we are experiencing a particular political economic moment in which other forms of productive work (e.g., paid labor) seem to lack a certain kind of meaning and importance that renders it unsatisfying in part b/c it is unsatisfying in terms of creativity, discovery, and autonomy.

I think it is interesting that American women ponder whether or not crafting is "feminist" - and consider what they learned (or not) from their mothers and grandmothers. There has been a strand of feminist discourse that salvages and celebrates "women's culture" that I think is being evoked here.

However. What especially strikes me now in the recent discussion at martinimade is the women's references to their age or at least stage in life: I realize that young women, too, are interested now in craft/s, but I wonder whether or not the turn to craft/s might be part of that continual process of crafting our lives / selves, esp. as women face age 40 and 50 and beyond.

For whatever reason, I find myself thinking about medical anthropologist Margaret Lock's book, Encounters with Aging, which compares women's experiences of menopause in North America and Japan. The book makes the rather surprising (and controversial) claim that women in Japan do not experience (or at least do not report complaints about) hot flashes, which are practically synonymous with menopause in the United States. Instead, Lock found that women in Japan reported other complaints, which in turn were linked to changes in their social identities.

What does crafting say about what kind of women we imagine ourselves being or wanting to be? How and why is it connected to becoming and being women, mothers, and grandmothers? How does becoming a mother (or grandmother) rewrite what it means to be a woman? Might crafting be a way that we remake ourselves?

Saturday, October 16, 2010


When last I blogged, I had been reflecting upon the observation that clearly not all students seem entirely prepared for college - and that both the kind and range of the challenges that students face (and a result, the challenges that students themselves then pose to faculty, staff, and administrators in academia and higher ed) leave me, as an anthropology professor, feeling rather unprepared to manage.

Exactly how am I supposed to "teach" students who are in no psychological, social, and / or even academic condition to "learn"?

Also, I confess, it is not only that I feel unprepared: I admit also that I feel somewhat unwilling to break what I understand as the "rules" of college b/c to do so then empties it all of meaning. Not just the class the student is taking, but also the student's purpose in college, his or her degree, and not insignificantly, the career to which I have committed myself as an anthropologist, who teaches... I mean if I had wished to be a psychiatrist / social worker / life coach / guru - not to mention a high school teacher - then that is what I would have become.

(BTW, there is a larger discussion that could be had here about rules making meaning, but that is too lofty for me... At least right at this moment, when I am procrastinating from grading exams while StraightMan and Beanie and Bubbie nap upstairs.)

As a cultural anthropologist, I think attending to meaning matters a lot - and should matter more to a lot more people - in the current discourse on college, esp. in this era of encouraging college-for-all. This is a point made in an article that appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of American Educator (which the American Federation of Teachers publishes): "Beyond One-Size-Fits-All College Dreams: Alternative Pathways to Desirable Careers."

The issue had lain forgotten in a stack of to-be-read magazines that I reached for in a fit of despair last night - a Friday night spent reading exams - and I think the cover story is well worth reading. It opens with the observation that while the majority of high school seniors today plan to go to college, the truth is that less than half will graduate from college - a rate that drops to less than 20 percent for low-achieving students, who often must start their college careers with remedial courses for which they receive no college credit. "Meanwhile, they have wasted precious time and money that could have been spent on career-focused certificates or associate's degrees that have better outcomes than are generally recognized," note the article's authors, James Rosenbaum, Jennifer Stephan, and Janet Rosenbaum.

The outcomes include AAs in radiography earning salaries in the $80K range. Which I might add seems unfathomably high: It is considerably higher than what I earn with a PhD from an institution that the National Research Council recently ranked as one of the top programs in anthropology.

Here is where the question of meaning become critical in academia / higher education:

In everyday language and in formal policy discussions, the word "college" is used as a synonym for "bachelor's degree." Colleges have much more to offer than just four-year degrees - and recognizing that fact would go a long way toward rescuing the college-for-all-movement.

A friend commented to me on Facebook that "college will never be for everyone": I think what we both mean is that the pursuit of the four-year / bachelor's degree is not for everyone. Not to mention an education in the liberal arts, which I think traditionally has defined the four-year / bachelor's degree.

Another point about meaning: "Students are understandably surprised to learn that 'high school competency" does not indicate 'college readiness.'" Huh. In my experience, I have learned that this is true in fact, but I am surprised to learn that this is true in intent, too.

An especially interesting observation in the article is their comment that too many students in high school tend not to be especially well informed "about" college: They know they "ought" to go, but they do not know that fewer than half will graduate. The authors suggest that students enter college with unrealistic expectations - which themselves make it even less likely that they will succeed - because adults are withholding information and as result misleading them. In part, this might be because some adults, like parents, might or might not have attended college and have the experience to share with their children. Or at a time when the ratio of high school guidance counselors to students is 1 to 284+, the advice is fairly general, with not much detail shared, let alone individual counseling.

Even more significant, I think, is that the rah-rah routine to cheer students into college appears to be part of a larger cultural or social value placed on, well, rah rah routines in general - especially when as they concern adults promoting and / or protecting children's well being.

We are mystified by what we are increasingly seeing as idealism that prevent optimal outcomes across youth-related fields. We think our society's tendency to advocate BAs for all is a good example of this problem. Somehow, across fields, we must find a way of being honest with our youth without crushing their dreams. Short term, the truth about college might be disheartening. Long term, knowing the truth is the only way to accomplish one's goals.

For another time: How to talk to talented undergraduate students about (sigh) graduate school.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Dammit, Jim...

I'm an anthropology professor, not a psychiatrist / social worker / life coach / guru - and definitely not your mother.


Interim (midterm) grades are due this Monday. I have exams from my two sections of ANTH 100 to grade, and will be collecting essay exams from another class next week. So, there is plenty to do. However. What has me feeling especially anxious and overworked at the moment is having to respond to students "in crisis."

I have been thinking about the blog discussion at The New York Times on "Have College Students Changed?" In particular, I think about this response from Linda Bips, a psychology professor at Muhlenberg College (and the author of "Parenting College Freshmen: Consulting for Adulthood"):

In my experience, freshmen today are different from those I knew when I started as a counselor and professor 25 years ago. College has always been demanding both academically and socially. But students now are less mature and often not ready for the responsibility of being in college.

Many of today’s students lack resilience and at the first sign of difficulty are unable to summon strategies to cope. The hardship can be a failing grade on a test, a cut from the team, or a romantic breakup. At the first sign of trouble many become unable to function and persevere. Often they even anticipate difficulties and their anxiety alone paralyzes them.

Whatever the causes might be, the effects that I observe are students apparently unprepared to meet the demands of higher education - and I am utterly unprepared to respond to them. I sometimes feel rather tested and I see this as not necessarily the student's fault. (Though it is true also that sometimes particular individuals push against the limits of my patience...)

There seems to be a serious gap between the expectation that a college education ought to be accessible to everyone, and what this actually requires. If college students are changing, then is college changing? Should it not?

Is the work of college professors, too, changing?

No answers this evening. Just questions.